We don’t get too many IPLs over here in Japan, so it was great timing that not only did I see a new local brewery’s stab at it with the Futako Unane Pale Lager, but I also found the Birra del Borgo and Dogfish Head My Antonia collaboration. Let’s take a look!
Futako Unane Pale Lager (ふたこ・宇奈根ペールラガー)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Pale straw gold, healthy foam, cloudy
Aroma – Lots of citrus and hops, a bit of dirt
Flavor – Very crisp, somewhat creamy, splash of fruit and hops on the finish, initially some sweet malts, good bitterness
Futako Beer is a relatively new brewery, having just gotten their start in 2014 and only recently started distributing bottles widely. They’re based in Tamagawa in Tokyo, so it’s pretty much as local as you can get location-wise in Tokyo. However, if that isn’t local enough for you, they’ve got another trick up their sleeve in what they call the Setagaya Hop Project.
The Setagaya Hop Project is something of a cross between DIY ingredient growing and local neighborhood exploitation. That’s probably a bit of a harsh way of describing it, as the intent seems to be mostly community-building, but the basic gist is this: they distribute hops to ordinary citizens in the Setagaya area, and these good citizens grow the hops in their own homes/yards/gardens/bathrooms. The harvested hops can be brought to Futako Beer and exchanged for beer, and then the hops are used in the brewing of Futako Beer. As most good citizens don’t know a thing about hop farming they also have some lectures and basic instructions for growing hops. Ultimately I suppose the idea is that if you are contributing your hops in the beer then you will be more likely to enjoy and consume the beer. Not a bad idea, but I’m not sure if I’m going to be growing my own hops anytime soon.
It’s not practical to source all of their hops this way yet, but they also source hops from local Setagaya farms. They also source some barley from the area and that’s the direction they hope to go in, but again, it doesn’t seem to be enough at the moment to cover all of their needs. Currently they’re client brewing at Kiuchi (Hitachino Nest) in Ibaraki, but the plan is that eventually they will be able to build a brewery in Setagaya.
This particular beer, which is the Unane Pale Lager, started off life as an IPA called the Unane Pale Ale. The further evolution of the beer now sees it as a lager, although the description of the beer has remained virtually identical with the exception of replacing the ‘A’ with an ‘L’. Their description sound like they just kept the same recipe and swapped out ale yeast for lager yeast, but I haven’t comes across the ale version. Quick naming note – Unane is a small corner of near Futako-Tamagawa, so the name is just a poke at the origin myth of IPAs having tons of hops in order to survive the long journey to India, or Unane as it may be.
The Futako Unane Pale Lager is a very pleasant surprise. It’s nicely bitter, but also with good malts and pine. It doesn’t have as much citrus as led to believe by the aroma, and it is slightly unbalanced in favor of the bitterness. Overall though, it is a solid beer and surprisingly well-done for a new and relatively unknown brewery.
The one big drawback here is price. The only place I’ve seen their beer at is Liquors Hasegawa, and it cost 695 yen, which is pretty steep even by Japanese standards. Perhaps the local ingredient production is more expensive, but the price does end up being a bit prohibitive for repeated consumption. A good beer, and it makes me curious about their other offerings, but at the same time the price does make me hesitate.
Birra del Borgo x Dogfish Head My Antonia
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 76; hops – Simcoe, Warrior, Saaz
Pour – Very fluffy and foamy, nice deep orange color
Aroma – Quite earthy, lots of sweet malts, a bit of citrus
Flavor – Very smooth and creamy texture, lots of earthiness but also lots of hops, malt base is very solid, pilsner aspects shine through very well with lots of balance
Birra del Borgo is one of Italy’s best known microbreweries – they got their start in 2005, and instead of setting up shop in Rome they located themselves in the middle of nowhere in a village called Borgorose. They were respected enough that in addition to this collaboration with Dogfish Head (there was also a restaurant collaboration with Dogfish Head that followed), they also brewed a beer together with Cantillon.
Of course, this story does not have a happy ending though, as they sold out to A-B Inbev (Anheuser Busch, essentially) earlier this year. This also resulted in the end of their collaborations and partnership with Dogfish Head, as Dogfish Head essentially just refused to work with them anymore after the A-B deal (go Dogfish Head!). Interestingly, although perhaps nobody would have predicted the A-B deal at the time, this Forbes profile here kind of hints at their naked ambition, so perhaps we should not be too surprised.
As for the beer itself, the Birra del Borgo My Antonia is actually a very good imperial pilsner. The Saaz hops really do some good work here, with lots and lots of the pilsner earthy hoppiness, but also with good malts and enough citrus elements to keep it balanced and interesting. The balanced aroma on this one is especially inviting, and to me it stands out as one of the best imperial pilsners I’ve ever had.
However, caveats about the A-B deal and the exorbitant cost prevent me from being able to wholeheartedly recommend the beer. Regarding the A-B acquisition, well, everybody has their own stance on that one but like most craft beer drinkers I can find enough good beer without having to support companies like Anheuser Busch. As for the cost aspect, high taxes and systemic inefficiency in Italy lead to higher costs for Italian craft beer compared to beer from places like Belgium or Germany or the States. This beer cost me 720 yen at Tanakaya, and while it’s a good one, I wouldn’t pay that much for it again.
Their beer used to be seen only somewhat intermittently here before, but recently I see them around much more, no doubt as a result of A-B Inbev’s marketing and distribution prowess. The My Antonia is a good beer to be sure, but given the cost and conglomerate factor, I don’t know if we have a winner here today. The Futako Unane Pale Lager is a good one as well, but isn’t quite as good as the My Antonia and costs almost as much, although in terms of principle they may be the exact opposite of Inbev – locally sourced ingredients with a community feel! I suppose if framed like that the Futako walks away the winner, so hopefully they can continue to improve their beer so we can support them unequivocally!